The Dashing Duo
Kelly’s Field Notes
Common Name: Dragonflies and Damselflies
Order: Odonata (refers to their toothed mandibles) - Dragonflies belong to suborder Epiprocta and Damselflies belong to suborder Zygoptera. Suborders rank between Order and Family.
Species of Note: 3,000 species of dragonfly worldwide, 2,600 damselfly species worldwide
Jewel-winged damselflies, Family Calopterygidae - the big boys and girls, vibrant metallic colors, black wings, lengthy wingspan
Males of the same species can be territorial or non territorial, differentiated by color.
The Globe skinner (Pantala flavescens) has the longest migration of any insect—18,000 km (11,000 mi) back and forth across the Indian Ocean.
Dragonflies - Adult dragonflies can range in length from 2.5 - 10 cm (1 - 4 in). Their wingspans are from 5 - 12.7 cm (2 - 5 in). They have thick bodies and when at rest their wings lay horizontally (wings of unequal size). They are paleopterous, incapable of folding their wings back along their abdomen. They have very tiny antennae, are generally iridescent in color, and have long abdomens with 10 segments. Dragonflies have two large compound eyes which touch and three tiny simple eyes (simple eyes detect light). Their mouths are for chomping! Their mouthparts are toothed and the labrum can be shot forward to grab prey (like in Aliens!). The nymphs’ labrum extends even further. You can think of the labrum almost like an upper lip that helps secure the food while the insect eats.
Speaking of nymphs! Dragonfly and damselfly nymphs are aquatic, and while their body plan is mostly like an adult’s they don’t have reproductive organs and instead of wings they have tiny wing buds. Dragonfly gills are located within their abdomens. Actually an easy way to tell a dragonfly nymph from a damselfly nymph is check their abdomen! Damselfly gills are located outside of their abdomens, fanning out like a triple fishtail. Nymphs come in four types: sprawlers, claspers, burrowers, and hiders. Some have fuzz on their bodies to collect detritus for camouflage.
Damselflies - Adult damselflies can range in length from 3.8 - 5 cm (1.5 - 2 in). Their wingspans are from 18mm - 19 cm (0.7 - 7.5 in). They have thin delicate looking bodies, and when they are at rest most of the time their wings lie vertically and together, neopterus (wings of even size make them slower than dragonflies). They have very tiny antennae, are generally iridescent in color, and have long abdomens with 10 segments. Damselflies have two large compound eyes which do not touch and three tiny simple eyes.
The giant dragonflies living during the Carboniferous period are not Odonates. They belong to the Order Meganisoptera (wingspans of up to 71 cm (28 in).
Unlike the other insects we’ve covered so far, dragonflies and damselflies undergo incomplete metamorphosis; egg, several nymph stages, adult. Eggs are either endophytic or exophytic. Endophytic eggs are oval shaped, and injected directly into leaves, stems, mud, rotted wood, or near the surface of the water. Hawker dragonflies lay this way and some emerald damselflies lay their eggs in this manner. Some damselflies take this to the next level by plunging their entire bodies into the water to lay their eggs, relying on the males they are attached to to pull them back out again. Exophytic eggs, which are round in shape, are laid on the water’s surface, coated in a jelly-like substance. Dragonflies species who lay this way are emeralds, skimmers, darters, and chasers. Eggs take 2-5 weeks to hatch, or up to a year for some species.
Once hatched the nymphs will make their way into the water, if eggs were laid above the water line, or begin swimming and hunting if laid submerged. Dragonfly and damselfly nymphs are voracious eaters! They prey upon mosquito larvae and other aquatic insects, small fish, and tadpoles. And each other! It typically takes about 2 years for a nymph to mature into an adult, but some species can take up to 5 years, or are finished in only 3 months. Water temperature affects food availability which is a driver for how long it takes to reach adulthood.
When nymphs are approaching adulthood they start to spend more time near the surface of the water. When it’s time, they either crawl up vegetation, rocks or the embankment or sometimes need to crawl several meters before finding a suitable location to molt. Most of the time this happens in the morning, but some species begin the process at night. It can take an hour for dragonflies to fully emerge as adults from their exuvia (casing) or three hours for damselflies. Adults only live about two weeks (though sometimes up to 8 weeks), spending their time eating, mating, and laying eggs.
Water Jet Propulsion - the nymphal forms of dragonflies and damselflies can shoot a jet of water from their abdomens for a quick burst of speed! I highly recommend looking for videos of this on YouTube.
Structural Coloration - like beetles and other iridescent insects, dragonflies and damselflies derive flashy colors from the structures in their carapace (please see Episode 4: The Viridian Villain!). They also tend to have pigmentation of brown, red, and black.
Flight - dragonflies can move their wings independently, this allows them to hover, fly backwards, and make sharp turns.
Dragonfly drone sidekick - If the CIA can do it in the 1970’s our hero can create a better version now.
Dragonflies and Damselflies in Culture:
Seen as a symbol of courage, happiness, and strength in Japan. It is bad luck to injure them.
In Japanese mythology the dragonfly (Tombo) is believed to be the spirit of the rice plant and a harbinger of rich rice harvests.
They are used in traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine.
In parts of Europe which carried that culture to the U.S Dragonflies were seen as evil in folklore with nicknames such as “The Devil's needle,” “ear cutter,” “snake servant,” and, “snake heeder.” In Denmark they were called “The Devil’s horse” and in Sweden “hobgoblin fly.”
In Swedish folklore the Devil used dragonflies to weigh men’s souls.
In Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and other parts of East Asia they are a common food.
Their grace and beauty has been a common theme for poets (H.E. Bates, W. S. Merwin, Lord Tenyson).
Several tribes of indigenous peoples in North America used dragonfly iconography on their pottery and in their mythology.
There have been many flying robots based off of the design of dragonfly wings and aeronautics. In the 1970s, the CIA created a tiny spy drone, “the insectothopter” as a means to collect audio intelligence. It was originally based on a bee but their flight was too erratic. The flight tests were noted as “impressive” and it could fly in winds less than 7 mph. It was never used in the field.
Paulson, Dennis. Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East. Princeton University Press, 2012.
Where To Report a Sighting:
There are several Odanata surveys taking place in many states. If you’d like to contribute by sharing a sighting that would be helpful to the scientists running these research projects!
Odonata Central Project - https://www.odonatacentral.org/#/
Mass Audubon - https://www.massaudubon.org/our-conservation-work/ecological-management/inventory-monitoring/odonate-monitoring-project
Minnesota Dragonfly Project - http://www.mndragonfly.org/html/involved.html
New Jersey Odonata Survey - https://njodes.org/
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“Discovering Dragonflies That Cross Oceans | Science | The Guardian.” The Guardian, www.theguardian.com, 6 Apr. 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/science/punctuated-equilibrium/2011/apr/06/1.
“Festo Builds BionicOpter—Fully Functional Robot Dragonfly (w/ Video).” Festo Builds BionicOpter—Fully Functional Robot Dragonfly (w/ Video), phys.org, https://phys.org/news/2013-04-festo-bionicopterfully-functional-robot-dragonfly.html. Accessed 22 July 2022.
“Life Cycle And Biology - British Dragonfly Society.” British Dragonfly Society, british-dragonflies.org.uk, 29 Apr. 2022, https://british-dragonflies.org.uk/odonata/life-cycle-and-biology/
Jones Jr, Bernard M., and C. E. Drover. "Flower World iconography and metaphor of the southern Colorado Plateau: The Puerco and Little Colorado River watersheds." Rock Art Papers 19 (2018): 135-152.
Kiauta, Marianne. "Dragonfly in haiku." Odonatologica 15.1 (1986): 91-96.
Montgomery, B. Elwood. "Why snakefeeder? Why dragonfly? Some random observations on etymological entomology." Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science. Vol. 82. 1972.
Smith, Max D. "The Dragonfly: Linguistic Atlas Underdifferentiation?." American Speech 43.1 (1968): 51-57.
Pemberton, Robert W. "Catching and eating dragonflies in Bali and elsewhere in Asia." American Entomologist 41.2 (1995): 97-99.
“The Insectothopter: The CIA’s Dragonfly Spy Drone From the 1970s.” Business Insider, www.businessinsider.com, https://www.businessinsider.com/insectothopter-cia-dragonfly-spy-drone-military-defense-espionage-spies-2016-12. Accessed 22 July 2022.